COLOMBO - Several hundred Muslim-owned businesses shut down in Sri Lanka’s capital on Thursday to protest against deadly riots by extremist Buddhists, defying President Mahinda Rajapakse’s plea to stay open.
Shops and restaurants in central Colombo were shuttered following the riots in two mainly Muslim coastal resorts popular with international tourists that left four people dead and Muslim homes and businesses razed.
“The protest is against the BBS and the police failure to protect our community,” a Muslim shopkeeper who declined to be named told AFP. “We are also asking the government to take action against those behind the riots.”
A Sinhalese businessman said most of the shops in the normally bustling Pettah wholesale market in Colombo were closed.
The violence on Sunday and Monday nights was blamed on the hardline Buddhist Force (BBS) in the southern towns of Alutgama and Beruwala, about 60 kilometres (35 miles) south of Colombo.
The closures came as police said a moderate monk, Watareka Vijitha, who voiced opposition to the BBS had been abducted, beaten up and dumped by the roadside outside Colombo early Thursday.
Hospital sources said the monk was in intensive care. Residents found him stripped naked, hands tied behind his back and dumped by the roadside in Panadura, a town outside the capital, police said.
The BBS, which has denied it was behind the riots, has been accused of targeting Buddhist clergy who opposed their hardline tactics.
Rajapakse on Wednesday urged majority Buddhists and minority Muslims to ease tensions and take steps towards peace.
During a tour of riot-hit Beruwala, Rajapakse promised an investigation into the riots and appealed to Muslims not to go ahead with a “hartal” or strike, plans for which had been circulating among Muslim communities.
The riots are the latest in a series of religious clashes to hit the island following unrest in January and last year, when Buddhist mobs attacked a mosque in Colombo.
Muslims make up about 10 percent of the 20 million population, but are accused by Buddhist nationalists of having undue influence in the country.
Police said they anticipated trouble after Friday prayers in the capital and additional units would be deployed. Police chief N. K. Illangakoon appealed to Muslims to ignore leaflets being distributed in Colombo calling on them to take to the streets in protest over the riots.
“We are working on special security arrangements for tomorrow (Friday),” Illangakoon told reporters. “We appeal to Muslims not to respond to calls for unrest issued in the name of bogus organisations.”
Illangakoon said they had arrested 55 people over the riots and the situation was returning to normal in the resort areas. Troops and police were Thursday patrolling the streets to deter further violence.
The unrest was triggered by a BBS march that took place in Alutgama on Sunday, with clashes breaking out after the group claimed its procession was stoned by Muslims.
The United States has led international condemnation of the violence, while Western embassies in Colombo have advised nationals holidaying in the area to stay indoors.